________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 2 . . . . September 12, 2008

cover Out on a Limb.

Gail Banning.
Toronto, ON: Key Porter, 2008.
251 pp., pbk., $11.95.
ISBN 978-1-55470-012-7.

Subject Headings:
Tree houses-Juvenile fiction.
Truthfulness and falsehood-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 4-6 / Ages 9-11.

Review by Tara Williston.

** /4

excerpt:

Sitting beside Bridget in the back of the minivan, I felt as desperate as a kidnap victim. The automatic garage door rolled itself away and we drove into the pouring rain. My mind was flapping like the windshield wipers, but I couldn't think of any way out of that minivan that Paige would agree to. And so, a few minutes later, we pulled onto Bellemonde Drive.

"This is good," I said, a block before Great-great-Aunt-Lydia's. "You can let me off here."

"Which house is yours?" Bridget asked.

"It's just on the next block," I said. "But this is fine, really. I'll get out here."

"No, I'll bring you," Paige said, and she drove on. On that whole next block Great-great-Aunt-Lydia's was the only house.

"This one?" Paige asked as Grand Oak Manor filled up the minivan windows.

"Mm-hm," I answered.

"This is your house?" Paige asked, staring out the window.

"WOW," said Bridget. "COOL! It's like a castle! Those towers are awesome! LUCKY!!!"

I couldn't wait to get out of there. "Thank you for the ride," I said, wrenching open the minivan door. "Thank you for having me." I slid the door shut. After a few steps I turned and waved to signal that they should go. They waved back, but Paige did a "shoo along" thing with her fingers. I knew what this meant. It meant they were going to wait until I was at the door.

 

In Out on a Limb, Gail Banning's first novel, we follow the lives of sixth-grader Rosamund (Rosie) McGrady, her younger sister, Tilley, and their left-wing post-grad parents over the course of 14 eventful months. Although the city in which they live is never named in the book, clues such as the rainy winter weather, references to the University Endowment Lands, and the issue of urban gentrification which opens the story all point clearly to a present-day Vancouver setting (where the author also makes her home). In fact, the scene in which Rosie's apartment building is demolished provides a hook into the story that is both exciting and moving while giving readers some interesting modern-day food for thought.

      When the signs go up on the McGrady's Eastside apartment building saying that, as of June 30th, all current tenants must be out to make way for the luxury townhomes that will be built on the site, the family begins looking for a new home. However, finding livable rental accommodations within Rosie's parents' limited student budget proves extremely difficult, and despite her mother's optimism, Rosie, herself, begins to grow worried, when... Presto! In the midst of pre-move cleaning, the family come across the will of dad's great-grandfather, who, as luck would have it, bequeathed an enormous treehouse to dad's father, who in turn left it to him. And as crazy as six year-old Tilley's idea to live in the cottage-sized treehouse first seems, the McGradys soon find it's their only option. So, with many an ingenious trick up their sleeves to transform the lofty playhouse into a functional home for four, the McGradys officially become tree-dwellers.

      Rosamund and Tilley are absolutely tickled pink by this turn of events, and the sisters enjoy an idyllic summer of outdoor adventure and discovery. The only things marring Rosie's pleasure in this exciting first summer in their new home-on-high are the chilly reception the McGradys have received from Great-great-Aunt-Lydia, on the edge of whose property the treehouse sits, and the looming prospect of starting at a brand new school come September. Great-great-Aunt-Lydia's numerous pointed unwelcome messages to the McGradys all leave Rosie feeling unsure of herself:


I could feel Great-great-Aunt-Lydia's dislike touching every surface of my skin. Great-great-Aunt-Lydia hated us, without even knowing us. It bothered me to think that someone could hate me without even knowing me. It was a scary idea, especially when I was going to be starting at a new school in less than two weeks.

 

      Predictably enough, Rosie's troubles steadily multiply until she is at last desperate enough to seek help where, less predictably, she might have least expected to find it: in the arms of the (seemingly) formidable Great-great-Aunt-Lydia herself. All comes right in the end — Rosie learns her lesson, salvages her friendship with Bridget, and ends up forging a bridge between the quirky foursome that is the McGrady family and their estranged rich aunt, who turns out to be not so formidable after all.

      While the premise of this story is certainly a novel one and Rosie's social woes and self-made snare of lies are likely situations to which most child readers will relate, there are several problems with the book as a whole. Told through the vehicle of Rosie's personal notebooks in which she has written her "true story... about the treehouse," it is a long book, totaling 251 pages in all. There were many elements of the story which could have been condensed or omitted altogether, as the book often drags and, at times, is not believable — the fact that Rosie and Bridget spend no fewer than five months deeply engaged in the same game (decoding a letter) without showing the least sign of flagging interest is just one example. Also, it is painfully evident that the author is using the McGradys' story as a political vehicle to instill a little eco-consciousness in her readers, which shows in every family member's predilection for preachy enviro-comments at random points throughout the book. While the message is a good one, the statements are jarring and demonstrate one way in which the book's editing could have been more effective, both to improve the cohesion of the writing and to increase the story's impact.

      Further lessening Out on a Limb's impact is the lack of consistency in Rosie's voice: in the book's opening pages, she narrates with a bubbly exuberance that not only verges on fatuity, but also makes her sound younger than her 12 years (using expressions such as "gazillion" and "ultra extra-special", for example). This language contrasts sharply with phrases such as "inanimate objects" (p. 23) and "unstimulating... it lowers my self-esteem" (p. 38). By the book's midpoint, however, Rosie has lost her tendency to gush and remains more serious — a good thing overall, but one which still leaves the problem of the book's format. Each chapter begins with an image resembling the label of a school notebook, marked with Rosie's full name and a "Subject" for the ensuing section. Yet it is unclear what these notebooks are. Are we reading a diary? The writing does not seem like a diary entry, nor does the text's layout quite reflect a diary, but Rosie is clearly telling her story, from her point of view. And yet there is a certain degree of narrative distance from the events, as well as a decidedly literary touch, so that these notebooks do not look or sound as if 12-year-old Rosie wrote them. They often sound, in fact, like an adult pretending to write as a child. There are times when Rosie's child-voice narration works marvelously well, and there are times when the author's more traditional, less childish, first-person narration works marvelously well; it is only a shame that the two are mixed!

      In spite of these and other problems with the book's believability, flow, and literary strength, Out on a Limb nevertheless possesses many merits. A scenario that is at once original (an urban family moving from regular old apartment building to extraordinary luxury treehouse) and commonplace (Rosie's social dilemma) will intrigue readers with its unusual elements and keep them interested with its familiar elements of the human experience. Gail Banning shows promise as a writer new to the children's literature scene, and Out on a Limb may well be enjoyed by children despite its occasionally heavy-handed style.

Recommended with reservations.

Tara Williston is a student in the Master's of Library and Information Studies program at the University of British Columbia, and a soon-to-be Children's Librarian.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.
 

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